Lawyers representing environment groups opposing the Northern Territory government’s plan to give a huge water licence to a giant Central Australian fruit farm developer have concluded the decision-making process has been flawed and could be overturned in court.

Key points:

  • The Environmental Defender’s Office thinks Fortune Agribusiness negotiations show bias
  • The NT government says developers have a right to work with companies so their proposals are appropriate
  • Traditional owners demand new negotiations over the huge water licence

NT Environment Minister Eva Lawler is due to make a final decision on the licence Fortune Agribusiness wants for Singleton Station by Monday. 

The Environmental Defender’s Office green legal organisation has combed through emails sent between the government and Fortune Agribusiness in 2019 and 2020 about how water rules would be changed to enable its planned massive fruit farm to go ahead in the desert.

Its freshwater program managing lawyer Dr Emma Carmody has concluded the government has opened itself up to a legal challenge.

“Ministers and bureaucrats exercising decision-making functions under legislation are required to observe procedural fairness, and that includes the rule against bias,” she said.

A Caucasian woman with brown hair in a bun wearing glasses

Dr Carmody said the NT government’s dealings could be seen as unfairly favouring Fortune Agribusiness.(Supplied: Emma Carmody)

The documents show the government changed a rule that no water-dependent ecosystems could be damaged on Singleton station, to allow 30 per cent of them to be impacted, after months of discussions with the company.

“The decision to create the new guideline [for damaging ecosystems] and then purport to rely on it, rather than applying the rules in the water sharing plan, represents in our view a legal error,” Dr Carmody said.

Traditional owners, and environment groups including the NT Environment Centre, which is being represented by the EDO, have said they were not invited to take part in the government’s negotiations.

“Why at no point, to the best of our knowledge, weren’t any of them consulted?” Dr Carmody said.

‘No rules were bent’

NT Environment Minister Eva Lawler has defended the process in which the ecosystem damage rules were changed.

“Departments can work with, whether its a developer, whether its a horticulturalist around the work that needs to be done for them to be able to invest in the Territory,” she said.

A blonde middle-aged woman wearing a navy jacket

Ms Lawler said the government’s water licence negotiations have been above board.(ABC News: Jane Bardon)

“If you wanted to have horticulture, if you wanted to have agriculture, there were things that needed to be done on that site.

“And that is the work that the department was doing, to make sure there were things in place so that that water licence could be gone through.”

Ms Lawler said the government is confident it has done nothing wrong.

“There have been no rules broken, no rules bent at all,” she said.

‘Government’s not doing the right thing for us’

Traditional owners and Indigenous residents have been angered by the revelations they were excluded from secret discussions to change the rules to allow some of their ecosystems in the arid lands south of Tennant Creek near Ali Curung to be impacted.

“The government’s not doing the right thing for us as the First Nations of this country, they should look at us first, not go ahead with Fortune Agribusiness without coming to talk to us,” Ali Curung resident Peter Corbett said.

“They need to come and talk to the traditional owners and the native title holders.

“We have a lot of sacred sites and soakages (underground waterholes) around that Singleton area.”

An Aboriginal man standing in front of a colourful painted sign that says 'art'

Mr Corbett said traditional owners were left out of discussions.(Supplied: Levi McLean)

They are now demanding the government restart the process of considering how to allocate the water resources on their land from the beginning.

“We all should be involved in that meeting, everybody that’s close to our water, we all should all be together and deciding what to do with our water because it’s so special,” traditional owner and artist Graham Beasley said.

NT Farmers Association consulted ‘throughout’

The chief executive of the NT Farmers Association Paul Burke said his organisation has been consulted by the NT government about the Singleton Station licence.

“We were consulted throughout that process and we were actively engaged,” Mr Burke said

“And as the policy stood then, that no groundwater-dependent ecosystems would be damaged, that policy meant that there could be no agricultural development in that region.

“Some sensible decisions have been made on that.”

Mr Burke said for all major upcoming projects, “we need to make sure that all stakeholders are considered and consulted with and that they have a meaningful way in which to engage in the process.”

A termite mound in Central Australia

Fortune Agribusiness plans to develop 3,500 hectares of the remote station to grow hay, avocados, onions, mandarins and jujube.(ABC News: Samantha Jonscher)

Test case as development ramps up

Dr Carmody said the Singleton Station licence could be an important test case, as a number of water-hungry industries, including gas and cotton, prepare to ramp up in the Northern Territory.

“The 10 largest groundwater licences in New South Wales are between seven and 15 gigalitres, and have between three and eleven bores attached to them,” she said.

“By comparison, the Singleton Station licence is for 40 gigalitres attached to 144 bores, so this is inordinately large.

“The Territory is at a critical juncture, and the government now has really an opportunity to significantly strengthen those laws before unsustainable water management becomes a serious issue.”

The NT government said there will be another opportunity for stakeholder input when Fortune Agrinbusiness’s land clearing application is considered and when the Environment Protection Authority considers the project.

Environment lawyers detect ‘legal error’ in NT government’s secret water licence plan
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